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Monday, August 27, 2012

Why drill for oil when you can grow it?

Bizarro Environmentalism, Part Deux

By Linda Felaco

As a lifelong environmentalist, when it came time to make my last vehicle purchase, I decided I was not going to buy another gasoline engine. But this was right around the time my husband and I were getting ready to return to Rhode Island, and a Prius just didn’t seem very practical in the snow, not to mention it lacked the towing capacity we were anticipating needing living out here in the boonies. 

Then I started reading about biodiesel[1] and realized a diesel engine might be a good interim purchase while the bugs were being worked out with hybrids and electrics (and until they became more affordable).

Unlike gasoline engines and ethanol, a diesel engine does not need to be modified to run on biodiesel; you just pump it into the tank same as petrodiesel. And while ethanol is currently produced largely from either corn or sugarcane, meaning it competes with agriculture and ultimately raises food prices, biodiesel can be produced from nonfood sources such as algae.

Indeed, in July, Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina issued a report concluding that crop-based biofuels should play only a small part in the move toward sustainable energy because they use more land, compete with food crops, generate more greenhouse gas emissions, and have a greater impact on the environment than other renewables such as photovoltaic solar energy, solar thermal energy, or wind power. 

"He's trying to make us use biofuel! Fire him!"

I mean we really dodged a bullet on that one, didn’t we. Imagine, instead of filling our tanks with petroleum products at the Sunoco, we might’ve been able to fill them with biodiesel a few hundred yards down the road. Quelle horror! 

Even better, far from sullying any of our pristine open space, the biofuel plant would have been sited where Kenyon Mill’s former owners had dumped hazardous waste for many years (dubbed “Charlestown’s Love Canal” by some). Not exactly the spot to build a playground.

Coincidentally, around the time Biofuel-gate was exposed, scientists unveiled an algae-to-biofuel project called OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) in which algae is grown not on land but in photobioreactors that float in saltwater, using sewage outflows as feedstock—a process ideal for coastal towns such as Charlestown. The process is designed so as not to compete with agriculture for land, fertilizer, or water, plus it also pretreats sewage outflows that would normally go into the ocean. Plus by growing the freshwater microalgae in photobioreactors that float on seawater, the potential for bioinvasion is eliminated, since even if the algae were to escape from the bioreactors, they wouldn’t survive in saltwater. 
A successful science project by these Westerly High School
students led to the state passing a law requiring commercial
establishments to recycle waste cooking oil into biofuel.

As it happens, Charlestown has just authorized spending $35,000 for the conceptual design, preliminary design, permitting, and engineering work for the Elimination of Directed Stormwater Discharge into Green Hill Pond, which, like oiling goose eggs, won’t actually clean up the pond, just prevent future pollution. Whereas if algae were grown in Green Hill Pond for biofuel, road runoff could continue to be directed into the pond and not only would the algae clean it up but we’d also get the biofuel. 

In related research, scientists have just unveiled a genetically engineered microbe that produces isobutanol, a chemical relative of gasoline that can be burned in car engines. (Biodiesel can of course only be used in diesel engines.) Even better, the researchers were able to get the modified microbe to expel the isobutanol in the lab, making the process more efficient. The team is working on further modifications that would allow the microbe to ingest carbon from agricultural or municipal waste.

So just what is so scary about a biofuel plant being built here in Charlestown? Whereas of course there’s nothing scary about having a nuclear power plant 20 miles upwind of us in a hurricane zone, is there? In fact, a reactor unit at Millstone recently had to be shut down because after July’s record-high temperatures, the water in Long Island Sound is too warm to cool the reactors sufficiently. That same warm water is also ripe for a hurricane. And let’s not forget what the tsunami did to the Fukushima nuclear power complex last year.

But of course this is Bizarro Charlestown, where everything is the opposite of the way it is in the real world. In the real world, people are pursuing renewable energy, but in Bizarro Charlestown, we run away from it.

[1] The terms “biofuel” and “biodiesel” are often used interchangeably, but biofuel in fact refers to any type of fuel from renewable sources, of which biodiesel is just one example. As a transportation fuel, biodiesel has a key advantage over other renewable fuels such as hydrogen, namely, that it can use the existing infrastructure for delivery to consumers.